Behind the scenes with Nick Danielson, the filmmaker who captured blind runner Dan Berlin's Wonderland Trail attempt.
“You got an 18-incher up here,” says Brad Graff as he leads blind ultra-athlete, Dan Berlin, up a rocky single track. “Another high one, it’s about 12 to 16 inches up.” With trekking poles, he prods the ground in front of Dan’s feet to mark the spot. He describes every feature he can blurt out, translating the landscape into words and images. “Big drop off there.” “A half-gap to the bridge… right… here.” “Some face branches.” He grins as they slap Dan’s face. “They’re good for ya.”
Nick Danielson, a former newspaper photographer, is there to film the 51-year-old’s FKT attempt to become the first blind runner to navigate the 93-mile Wonderland Trail in three days. For Nick, this is something different. As a guide for Aspire Running Adventures and a freelance photographer, he’s familiar with the area. His Instagram is chock-full of it: pristine mountain ranges, contrasts and pastels that are easy on the eyes. But he’s never spent much time around a blind person, and he’s not sure what to expect with Dan. Moreover, how to capture it?
Dan was in second grade when he couldn’t see the chalkboard anymore. The glasses his parents got him weren’t working. Shortly after, he was diagnosed with Stargardt’s, a single-gene retinal disease which led to progressive vision loss. He was legally blind by his mid 30’s and in 2006 moved to Colorado, overwhelmed by his disability. It wasn’t until 2009 that Dan found running and an edge. He learned he had a lot more ability than he thought and maybe something to give back. Since then, he’s gone on to become the first blind athlete to do an R2R2R, run the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in less than 13 hours, and he recently summited Mt. Kilimanjaro in two and a half days, all while helping raise money for various blind-related charities.
“For blind kids, one of the barriers to them succeeding in life and thriving are low expectations – from parents and from schools,” says Dr. Kirk Adams, President of the American Foundation of the Blind. “What Dan’s team is accomplishing is the explosion of misperceptions about people who are blind.”
Nick’s job is to document Dan’s attempt but also to give vision to the blind runner’s experience. The 28-year-old follows the three-man team with his Fuji XT4 in hand and a Solomon Sense stuffed with three lenses and memory cards. The first thing that grabs him is the team dynamic. They work and move as a single entity. Brad is the brain of the operation. Cynical and organized, he keeps everyone grounded. Charles Scott is the endorphins – the unflinching optimist. A New Yorker, he’s travelled cross country to make this happen. And Dan is Dan – all sinew and senses, he’s the heart.
“A bunch of little rocks, like four inches,” Brad calls out as they cross a field of scree. He’s in the lead, Dan in the middle, and Charles in the back. “This is like a one-foot step-down onto another dead tree,” he continues. “Now you’re on the trail.” Then, Charles shifts to the front and the energy lightens. “A little bit to the right,” he says, casually tapping the edge of a log with his poles. Later, he helps Dan gingerly squat down on a log. “You know what this is called?” Charles asks. “Old and tired.”
But Nick can’t help but feel their desperation as an inky night sets in. The original plan was to leave Longmire and be in camp in Mowich by midnight. That became one, then two, and now… maybe 4 am. The trail is rockier than Dan imagined and more varied. Big stones, little stones, boulders, toe-tappers. Even with help, Dan is constantly tripping. Stumble, trip, stumble, trip. Each time, he becomes more unbalanced – a feeling of vertigo building. Nick not only sees the team’s fatigue, he feels it, and his role slowly shifts from filmmaker to guide. He knows the swollen Mowich River is still out there between where they are and where they need to be. He grabs his inReach and asks for help.
“River crossings can be extremely hazardous this time of the year,” says Tracy Swartout, Deputy Superintendent. “The park’s cold, swift-flowing waters require a high level of caution, even for hikers with extensive experience, knowledge and skills.” Just two years ago, the body of a hiker was found on the same rocky banks of the Mowich.
Probing the dark, the team’s head torches finally illuminate a small bridge. The info Nick had gotten from Aspire was right on, but the crossing is merely a skinny log, shaved flat on top with a small makeshift railing on one side. Exhausted and nervous, Nick crosses first then grabs the log, steadying it as best he can, while Charles holds it from the other side. Dan seems unmoved and follows Brad out into the middle. Two feet beneath them, the Mowich is white, fitful, ferocious. The sound is deafening. A fall here would not end well.
It’s 1:30 in the morning, still four miles to camp, and a cloud has fallen over the group, a collective realization the battle may be won, but the war lost.
Editing the short film together of Dan’s attempt, titled “Every Root, Every Rock,” Nick battled what to cut out and what to keep in. Then, he came across Dan talking about failure. “Just getting out there and starting it is a win,” he’d said with Charles and Brad by his side. “We need to take the step anyway, even though we just don’t know how it’s going to work out.”
Nick spent only one day with Dan but found himself somehow changed. Soon after he was contemplating his own FKT push: Section J of the PCT. Then, the thought of putting himself out there like that became too overwhelming. It’s farther than he’s ever gone and faster than he believes he can manage. What if it’s a brutal failure? What would people say? But that was exactly Dan’s message on the Wonderland. “It’s okay to let ourselves off the hook,” he’d said. “We don’t have to live up to everyone else’s expectations of what we should be doing.”
Nick admits he has a hard time doing that. Perpetually haunted by a feeling he could make things better, doubts keep him from promoting his work. He’s trying to let that perfectionism go – to just put himself out there. But what if that’s not good enough?
Wrapping up the film, Nick runs through the final cut one more time, stopping the video to replay a scene. It’s a moment on the trail unlike the problem-plagued others, untethered to checkpoints and times, success or failure. The team is climbing west up toward Golden Lakes when Brad senses something and turns around. The sun has slipped beneath the hills and an alpenglow is materializing behind them. Bright orange clouds, puffy like cotton candy, ooze over a lavender bed of atmosphere. Striking up from the ground is Rainier, a dark silhouette in a menagerie of color. The team’s push for speed comes to a stop as Brad begins to narrate the phenomenon out loud. “You have the sunset… kind of pink on the fore mountain,” he calls out in a whimsical tone. “And then you have the glacier of Rainier behind it. A little bit of pink in the sky.” Dan seems to see everything Brad is saying. He can feel the light, sense the giant structure, picture the image. His head is tilted up in a moment of revelry. His eyes curve and smile at their edges, and his mouth drops. For a moment, he’s no longer on the Wonderland Trail. He’s a second grader again, glimpsing the mystical lights of his first carnival.
The Every Rock, Every Root virtual screening party is Sunday, April 10th, at 5:30 PST. Attendees will be able to chat with Dan and Nick about their Wonderland Trail experience.
RSVP here for the viewing party.